(Apparently there is a big heading that says ‘undefined’ on top of this post. I don’t know why. This isn’t some artsy thing, this is software being insane.)
I know what this looks like. And you’re not entirely wrong, either.
Yes, I—a young, recent college graduate living in San Francisco and working in the technology industry—have decided to start a blog. Being an occasional consumer of blogs much like this, I’m fully aware that this is the second most common and least differentiable sort of writing, right behind healthy eating recipes. But, Dear Reader, this blog isn’t really for you. This blog is for me. I thought the reasons why that’s true might make for a good first blog post.
Here's the main one:
I want to learn things. But it’s easy to try to learn things and still be dumb about them. But if I’m dumb about them in a blog post, on the internet, which is public, I will be embarrassed and probably bullied. So, this will make me work very hard to not be dumb in my blog posts, which will make me smart.
But there’s also this:
I miss writing and have become bad at it. I need literary exercise This includes reading regularly for the first time since, I don’t know, elementary school summers? Checkout my bookshelf. .
Let’s start with that.
I’ve always thought of myself as a “writer”. This distressing condition can probably be traced back to an excellent high school writing teacher, Mr. Friebel, and to four years of writing really mediocre opinion articles for The Dartmouth. Any brief attempt to write seriously will simply leave one with the crushing realization that writing is very hard and those who do it wellI can’t get enough of stories about famous writers, particularly the slightly unsettled, hypermasculine creative nonfiction types. One great one is this 1960 New Yorker story where Norman Mailer, vacationing in Cape Cod, ends up being arrested for calling “Taxi!” after a passing police wagon. A fight ensues. Mailer condescends, “At one point one of the policemen tripped and fell, but I was on my feet all the way, a point to take no vast pride in because the cops were smaller than me, and did not know how to fight.” He then represents himself in court, swearing in his wife and the journalist from the New Yorker as witnesses. He wins. Despite being, at one point, a finalist for a prize named after Mailer, I do not know how to fight. are mysterious and frighteningAlso, Hunter S. Thompson’s schedule. It’s worth noting that while I find these writers fascinating, I have no illusions that they were also sometimes violent, chauvinistic, and all in all deeply unwell. . But every now and then, you write something you’re proud of, and it’s a joy.
So, I wish to writeBut I don’t really wish to edit. Which is bad because editing is a fundamental part of good writing. I still haven’t decided how much I’m going to edit these things. I’ll probably rework sections as I go (which makes my intros heavily edited and makes my conclusions basically improv). I’ll probably also send my stuff to a smart friend or two for an accuracy/sanity check. . Studying computer science and economics didn’t offer many opportunities to write creatively. Right now, my writing is ungreat. Hopefully, by writing publically and prolifically, my writing becomes better.
Blog posts can do wonders for a hard topic. There’s Chris Colah’s Visual Information Theory, which is quickly becoming legend. There’s the completely insane world of Gwern, who is already a sort of mythAnd whose use of Edward Tufte-esque type and sidenotes I liked quite a bit and copied for this blog. . And there’s Money Stuff, which is not a blog post but a daily newsletter which is sort of the same thing, by Bloomberg’s Matt Levine, which is easily what I look forward to most when I wake upWhat? It’s fun. . These are all writers who, though they write to different ends, are good at explaining hard things. This is something I’d like to learn.
Of course, the aforementioned writers all possess specialized knowledge—a deep knowledge of neural networks, a JD and a few years of investment banking, or being a totally anonymous, self-experimenting mysterious internet person—that I lack. Which is why “blog” isn’t my favorite word to describe this site. I’m not sharing my domain knowledge, I’m documenting my attempt to acquire it. It’s basically a bunch of notes to myself. It'd be great if those notes explained things well.
Learning & Remembering
Writing is great and all, but back to the matter of being less dumb. There are many technical matters I’d like to assay Because I’ll assay (from the French “to try, essayer”) to understand something and then write an essay about it, eh? I am not fun at parties. . The problem is my ability to seriously learn suffers outside of rigid academic structures. I also have a very poor memory. I need a way to force myself to really work with a problem so that I actually understand it. Once I’ve understood it, I need to remember it.
Here’s Gregory Gundersen, a PhD at Princeton and random I think I found this on HackerNews, where I find a lot of things. internet person who is smarter than me but roughly doing the same thing:
“Blogging is a public act. Anyone can read this. When I write a blog post, I imagine my supervisor, a respected colleague, or a future employer reading my explanation. These imagined readers force me to ask myself honestly if I understand what I am writing. How do I know when a post is done? I write until I stop having significant questions, until my imaginary audience stop raising their hands. The end result is that writing forces me to acknowledge and then work through my confusion.”
When it comes to remembering, I think narrative structures are great. Stories stick to my brain in ways facts don’t. “Some smart people decided that picking stocks is really hard and doesn’t always make money. So, they decided to just buy a little bit of all the stocks (basically) because in general the U.S. economy grows so on average they’ll make money in a much more predictable way.” That’s an index fund! And it’s easy to add other characters, stockholders, government regulators, and the like. It’s possible that someone has already written the perfect, narrative explanation for me for every topic I want to learn about. That seems unlikely and also runs afoul of the “learn by explaining” goal of this blog.
So, it seems useful to write explanations for myself, in a way that I find tractable, in a place where I can reference them once I’ve inevitably forgotten them. Again, basically a bunch of notes to myself.
Here’s crazy ‘ol Gwern again:
“Rather, I am attempting to explain things to my future self, who is intelligent and interested, but has forgotten. What I am doing is explaining why I decided what I did to myself and noting down everything I found interesting about it for future reference. I hope my other readers, whomever they may be, might find the topic as interesting as I found it, and the essay useful or at least entertaining–but the intended audience is my future self.”
So, Dear Reader, while I hope that you find my work here educational or at least entertaining, it is chiefly my attempt to maintain a vivid intellectual life (read: less dumb). There may come a point where I will put forth novel ideas, but that point is probably quite far off. It is likely that in writing to understand, I’ll mostly just point out how much I don’t know, despite my fancy degree and fancy job. This will probably be embarrassing. It might be fun! Who knows.